Woolf intends her titular metaphor to have significances as countless as the shifting identities of her characters. We may at first be tempted to translate the symbol by seeing the waves of life's experiences wash away, again and again, the sands of her characters' identities. However, as the novel progresses, Woolf hints that this current is much more malevolent, enveloping, and unnatural than her potentially calming image suggests. Woolf views the waves as an antagonistic force-- as the imposing social obligations that conscript her characters into an existence which, deep within themselves, they regret and even reject.
Woolf expresses this foremost by drowning her prose in compassion and admiration for her characters, though they are flawed and often despise one another. At the beginning of the novel, the young characters distinguish themselves by "speaking" (that is, ruminating) in unique poetic tones. Jinny is "fiery," Rhoda "pale," and most everyone seems to loathe Bernard's intellectual arrogance (21, 16). However, none of the characters can escape the onslaught of the clergy, whom they disbelieve even as children, school, from which they yearn to escape, and urban street mobs, which Louis later pauses to avoid as if they were, perhaps literally, the waves. As he grows older, Bernard laments that the best art is always produced in "solitude" (58). Indeed, he seems nostalgic for the earlier sections of the novel, a time when the characters were freer and more distinguishable. Though the young Rhoda echoes the disenfranchised, contrarian sentiment of A Room of One's Own, and the young Susan pines for unrequited love, all of the characters become in some way disenchanted as they grow older.
Woolf here reveals another application of the metaphor-- the waves draw the countless crystalline grains of sand from the shore, into the sea of conformity. Ironically, Woolf is not echoing the affirming and unifying Hindu image of the soul, in which human drops of water in the sea are in a state of oneness with the universe. Instead, the waves alienate her characters further from the world around them, and from one another. They become, as Bernard describes it, an "encircled population, shuffling past each other in endless competition along the street" (114). Rhoda echoes precisely the metaphor Walter Benjamin applies to the hopeless working class in Paris, "I will fling myself fearlessly into trams" (163). Though the waves may draw the characters together physically over the years, the water soon flings itself upon the shore in a violent splash, alienating them emotionally and spiritually.
[I have chosen to skip ahead to the fourth, "topic of choice" option, as I have not yet had a chance to see one of the films.]